How DeMarco, Lister, and Cockburn Helped Me Find a Better Job (Part 1)

Two years ago, I was enthusiastic, energized, and about to plunge into depression. I was enthusiastic and energized because I had started a new job two months before, and I was in a position where I could make choices, and I knew I could make the right choices. I was stretching myself beyond what I had done before, and I wanted to prove myself. Within two more months, that would change.

The previous April, on the first of the month, I got laid off from the job I had at Company Y had for 14 years. It had been 14 years almost to the day. They laid most of us off. It was a near-fatal bullet in an otherwise dead horse. Some of our little group were away at a trade show for the week. They returned to find the office turned into a ghost town. In another universe, the timing would have been just a sick joke. In this universe, it was just how the cards fell.

I felt sad, but also relieved. There had been days that I came into work, sat in my cube, and just felt like crying. The stress had caused a tic in my left eye. Those of us who were under-paid got meager raises. The rest accepted pay cuts in order to stay on board. And if you’ve ever been in a tight-knit, entrepreneurial group like that, you understand why we stayed. That was a very special group. I still look up to the people I worked with there. The day we got laid off, my tic disappeared.

Every job I’ve had since then has been at least in part due to someone I had worked with there. Never underestimate the power of networking. We immediately put together an “ex-Y” email list on Yahoo Groups to keep in touch. A month after the layoff, I was working again. One person I had worked with previously now worked at my new company, for the same manager as me. Another knew my new manager personally, but the job wasn’t right for him. But it was perfect for me.

I’m not sorry I took that job. It was in a larger company, not of the size of IBM or Microsoft, but 10 times the size of any other place I had worked. I learned a lot, especially about communication and conflict management. I also learned a lot about what classy management, just by watching how my manager responded to various situations. Unfortunately, she was unable to isolate us from the corporate culture. And that was my downfall.

Teamwork, as Orwell would have described it

What do playing mini-golf and building bridges out of Popsicle sticks have in common? Answer: They’re both teamwork-building activities!

Note, I called them “teamwork-building activities.” I did not say they actually build teamwork. Sometimes, activities will help build teamwork, such as the spaghetti dinner in chapter 21 of Peopleware. Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister first published this classic in 1979. The current, Second Edition was published 20 years later, keeping the original text intact, adding 8 new chapters. But the original text had been proven by 25 years. There are some common-sense things you can do to help teamwork grow, a little you can do to “build” teamwork. But there’s plenty you can do to tear it down.

In Peopleware, DeMarco and Lister note 9 teamwork killers. Seven of these are in chapter 20, part of the original text. The remaining 2 are in chapter 27, added with the Second Edition. They are as follows:

  1. Defensive management: Tell you people what not to do before they take risks and embarrass you.
  2. Bureaucracy: Make sure every decision needs to go through multiple layers of management and paperwork.
  3. Physical separation: People who need to work together sit apart, far away from each other.
  4. Fragmentation of people’s time: Make sure everyone has at least two projects to show progress on each day. Four is even better.
  5. Quality reduction of the product: It doesn’t matter whether it’s good, as long as no one finds out how badly it stinks.
  6. Phony deadlines: It must be done by this date, but not because anyone’s life is actually affected.
  7. Clique control: If a team spontaneously starts to jell, take concrete steps to break it up before it does any damage to management’s power structure.
  8. Motivational posters: “T•E•A•M•W•O•R•K . . . The Fuel That Allows Common People To Attain Uncommon Results
  9. Overtime: If Joe can’t work late because he has family responsibilities, that’s okay. We’ll pick up the slack for him. Until we start to burn out.

I saw 8 of these first-hand. My manager, bless her soul, actually did once countermand a feature I was implementing, because she was afraid that if something went wrong the CTO would blame her. (#1) The feature would have taken about 5 minutes of work total and posed minimal risk. I had already gone to each of the 4 departments involved, talked to the engineers there, and figured out that the change amounted to 3 lines of code total. It took 6 months. (#2)

The person I was supposed to be working most closely with was a 30 second walk away. (#3) I actually made a concerted effort each day to drop by his cube and say hello, because if I didn’t make a concerted effort, I could go days without even talking to him. Most engineers worked on at least 2 different projects at once. (#4) And I made it a point with my manager to insist that I spend at least a day on a single project before switching.

My job was writing hardware diagnostics that assure the quality of the product. Unfortunately, the project had previously gotten behind, and at that time the diagnostics were set to the side. (#5) When I came on board, there were a number of half-completed, buggy diagnostic programs already completed, and that’s it. Fortunately, they had a good manufacturing engineer, and they hired me, and between us, we got a decent production-test process in place, via numerous end-runs around the corporate system.

I implemented an Agile schedule as soon as possible, keeping in constant communication with my primary customer, Manufacturing. But before we became comfortable with this process, I got bit by a phony deadline. (#6) It was my own fault, as I had committed to functionality I did not deliver. I had a good reason not to deliver, as the priorities had changed. For the most part, I just followed the schedule for the other departments working on the project. They had priority over diagnostics, anyhow. (#5 again) Fortunately, most of the time, the milestones for the project got pushed out as things went wrong with other people’s stuff. As long as Manufacturing was happy, though, I was happy.

I avoided overtime for the most part, and it never became a huge problem. But at one time there was talk that the CTO had dug up some study that showed that the average engineer works 56 hours a week, and we may be expected to give “that level of performance.” (#9) This is so wrong on so many levels, I’m not even going into it right now. But all was made right when I saw tagged to the end of my group’s weekly status report, “A professional is someone who can do his best work when he doesn’t feel like it. – Alistair Cooke.” (#8) This was a rare blotch on a stellar management record. (I haven’t told you any of the good things she did.) I truly admired my manager’s skill, and to this day I don’t understand why she put that there.

The only teamwork killer I did not see was clique control. (#7) But then again, I also didn’t see any teams spontaneously threaten to form.

At one point, HR met with each of us in order to get feedback regarding the work environment and the direction the department was going. When our HR person interviewed me, I told her, frankly but with an upbeat attitude, exactly what I’ve told you here. I told her about Peopleware. She had never heard of it. (How could anyone working in a high-tech company not have heard of Peopleware?) But she listened. I told her about the 9 teamwork killers and that I’d seen all save one, and I would have rather have seen all 9 than to save that particular one. And I gave her three things that management could do, unilaterally, to improve teamwork significantly and immediately. When things are so screwed up, simple improvements can make big differences.

As you surely expect, and as I had expected, nothing constructive happened. But still it felt good to tell the truth.

(Part 2 will be posted tomorrow.)

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